Buddhism dominates Western States behind Christianity

Last month the Washington Post published an article* illustrating religion in America today with maps like the one below. If you’re interested in the composition of religion in America today, I highly recommend reading it.

The data used to created them is from the ASARB, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. That site, which provides downloadable data going back to 1952, is also excellent. Those curious about obscure facts and figures will have a field day there. Just checking the 1952 figures (downloaded as a .csv file) shows that the most religious state then was… Rhode Island, with around 76% reporting adherence to one religion or another, followed by Utah with 73%. Oregon and Washington come in at the bottom with 28% and 30.5% respectively. My home state, Montana, lies right in the middle: 22nd with 47%.

By 2010 Rhode Island had fallen to 21st in the country with just 47% of its residents reporting religious adherence, while Utah rose to #1 with 79%. North Dakota came in 2nd in 2010 with 67% (note the large drop there). Montana dropped to 40th with 38%. And Oregon and now Maine finished out the list with 31% and 27.6% religious adherence respectively.

Data on Buddhism is sparse, with a general “Buddhism” question only added to the census in 2000, but no data on actual adherents, and a breakdown into Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana in the 2010 census. I wrote about a 2008 Trinity College poll on Buddhists in America in 2011, which suggested a seemingly low number of only around 1.19 million Buddhists in America. At that time, in 2011, I guessed from other data that there must be around 5-6 million Buddhists in America. However, the ASARB numbers are much closer to the Trinity College number, giving:

  • 203,900 Theravada Buddhists
  • 732,783 Mahayana Buddhists
  • 55,000 Vajrayana Buddhists
For a total of just under 1 million.  Note from their methods section (.pdf) that this is a count of “visible practicing Buddhists,” a number sure to be far lower than those who would self-ascribe as Buddhist.
As I wrote in 2011, all of these number should be read skeptically. To get a real number we have to turn to someone who can read not only the data itself, but also the holes and gaps in the data. For coverage of Buddhism in America there is no better source than Charles Prebish, who published “Looking West: A Primer on American Buddhism” just over two years ago. In chapter 2 of that book he discusses the rising estimates from a variety of sources, from
  • around 100,000 Buddhists in America in 1970,
  • 800,000 in 1994 
  • (while Robert Thurman guessed 5-6 million around that time and Martin Baumann proposed a number of 3-4 million)
  • 1.5 million in 2001
  • and finally his best guess being between 4 and 6 million today.
That brings us to the map below.
Largest non-Christian Religions in America by State

Largest non-Christian Religions in America by State

While this doesn’t tell us specifically where the millions of Buddhists in America reside, it does give us a good sense of where Buddhism has spread/is spreading in the US. What we need next are maps like this at different times.

Here are a couple more Buddhism maps from the 2010 study:

Update: and just a couple more. Note the Pluralism Project’s 2003 map of Montana shows significantly more sanghas than the ASARB one:

And from the Pluralism Project:

* Religion in America’s States and Counties in 6 Maps

August 1, 2014 update: Jeff Wilson has some similarly skeptical and conflicted thoughts over at Tricycle: “Painting the West Saffron” (June 10, 2014).

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